Congratulations to GTN Speaker Apolo Anton Ohno, the Most Decorated Winter Olympian in American History!

February 25th, 2010

February 21, 2010
Ohno Stakes Claim as U.S. King of Winter
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VANCOUVER, British Columbia — As Apolo Ohno skated slowly around the rink at Pacific Coliseum, he held both the American flag and seven fingers above his head.

The fingers represented the seven medals Ohno has now won in three Olympics, the most of any American winter athlete. He secured his latest medal late Saturday, capturing the bronze in short -track speedskating’s 1,000-meter race.

It marked Ohno’s second medal of these Olympics and made him what the United States Olympic Committee described as the “most decorated” American Winter Olympian of all time. (The bedazzled figure skater Johnny Weir might disagree.)

“It feels amazing,” Ohno said. “In our sport, it’s crazy to win one medal, for any athlete.”

In the first row sat someone who knows something about medals, about racing and winning and thrusting both arms skyward after the finish. That someone was Michael Phelps, the swimming sensation, and he applauded Ohno’s historic finish.

Before the final started, flags swirled in the sold-out stands. Five skaters remained: two from Ohno’s nemesis country, South Korea, the Hamelin brothers from Canada and Ohno.

With just over two laps remaining, Ohno surged into second place. At that point, he said he felt the race “was mine.” Instead, he stumbled, falling in one eye blink into last. Still, Ohno recovered, passing both Canadians to finish third, as Lee Jung-su won his second short-track gold in eight days. Lee Ho-suk earned the silver.

“It means a lot to me, especially in a sport like this,” Ohno said. “I’m all smiles.”

He had cruised into the 1,000-meter final in typical late, smooth, exhilarating fashion. In both his quarterfinal and his semifinal heats, Ohno started near the back, on purpose.

His semifinal included Sung Si-bak, the South Korean skater Ohno tangled with last weekend, and Charles Hamelin of Canada, the world-record holder in this race. Ohno hung mostly in third, but on the final lap, he cut inside and passed both, as the crowd roared.

They arrived together at the finish line, with Ohno’s skate perhaps half a foot ahead of his two competitors, and Hamelin’s skate mere inches beyond Sung’s blade. Ohno pumped his right fist, lightly, with little emotion. The most important race, the one with historical potential, was 30 minutes out.

Earlier this week, the youngest American speedskater, 18-year-old Simon Cho, marveled at Ohno’s medal count. For most of Cho’s skating life, Ohno has grabbed medal after medal in speedskating’s wildest, most volatile discipline. Ohno won in Salt Lake City, won in Italy, and won again at these Olympics, held three hours from where he grew up.

He never matched Eric Heiden’s tally of five gold medals in one Games. Nor can Ohno boast Bonnie Blair’s total of five golds and one silver. But Ohno has won, with both consistency and controversy, against four generations of elite skaters.

Regardless of where Ohno fits in speedskating history, seven medals are still seven medals, still more than any other American Winter Olympian or any short-track speedskater from any country. Beyond that, Ohno boosted an obscure sport into relative popularity, practically by himself.

His legacy will include all of that, along with whatever he adds in his final two events next week.

“That’s why he’s the master of short track,” Cho said. “We’ll see in the end how many he ends up with. But I’m sure there’s more to come.”

In what is likely his last Olympics, Ohno emanated calm. He often yawned while warming up before his races, including in the 1,000-meter final, and he projected the tranquility of a Buddhist monk in news conferences and cyberspace postings.

During his first event, the 1,500 meters, Ohno once again found controversy. And once again, it involved both him and South Korean skaters.

Ohno may regularly wear a soul patch on his chin, but he has never been the most popular speedskater in Seoul, Korea. Locals there bestowed Ohno with the nickname, The King of Fouls. They put his face on toilet paper and sent both death threats and complaints, hundreds of messages that briefly shut down the U.S.O.C.’s server recently.

In the 1,500, two South Koreans tangled with Ohno with half a lap remaining, sapping his momentum. Ohno elbowed back. On the final turn, Sung and Lee Ho-suk crashed into each other, allowing Ohno to slip in for silver, while his teammate, J. R. Celski, cruised to bronze. (Celski was disqualified in the 1,000-meter semifinals.)

“Ohno didn’t deserve to stand on the same medal platform as me,” Lee Jung-su told the Yonhap News Agency after he won the 1,500-meter gold. “I was so enraged that it was hard for me to contain myself during the victory ceremony.”

Ohno never fired back. He felt relieved to have overtaken Heiden’s medal count and to have tied Blair in his first event. Ohno could spend the rest of the Games focused on his races, instead of history.

“He senses how important this is to his life and career,” his father, Yuki Ohno, said. “He wants to finish it clean, without regret. His deep-rooted passion for the Olympics and what that means have motivated him. He must embrace it.”

Afterward, Ohno kept insisting he did not care about records, his place in history, or his status as the “most-decorated” American winter athlete. Reporters kept asking the same questions, different versions of what this medal and his seven medals total meant.

“Another historical night,” Ohno said, smiling, as he stood alone atop the American medal count for Winter Olympians.